Hong Kong Palace Museum: Treasures of Beijing’s Forbidden City Find New $450 Million Home

Written by Stephy Chung, CNNKristie Lu Stout, CNNHong-Kong

Located in the heart of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Palace Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Chinese art, spanning nearly 5,000 years. Now more than 900 of those treasures are on display in the new Hong Kong Palace Museum – a “gift” from the central government to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule.

While there’s nothing overtly political in the collection — at least by modern standards — the museum caused controversy when it was first announced in late 2016 by outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, in part because of the apparent lack of public consultation before the project was green lit.

The Palace Museum’s long-term loan, which includes rare paintings, calligraphic works, ceramics, jade and more from its 1.8 million strong collection, is “unprecedented on every level,” said Bernard Chan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Museum.

“This is the first time ever that large quantities of these national treasures have been taken to another cultural institution, so you can imagine the complexity behind it,” he adds, citing challenges around transportation, security and insurance, the latter of which a conglomerate of about 100 insurance companies from around the world was needed to solve.

The red studded doors at the entrance of the museum. Construction of the building was funded by a $3.5 billion HKD ($450 million) donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum

Putting together exhibits amid a pandemic also proved challenging — as did an accelerated timeline ensuring the museum opened in time for this week’s anniversary.

“When I was a curator in the United States, I spent three years working on one exhibition. Now I have three years to work on nine exhibitions,” said deputy director Daisy Wang Yiyou, referring to the museum’s ambitious opening schedule.

The stunning artifacts, 166 of which are considered “rank-one national treasures,” are featured in themed shows, including one exploring aspects of imperial life in the Forbidden City and another focusing on innovative design and manufacturing techniques. Elsewhere, an exhibition of horse-inspired art juxtaposes works from the Forbidden City with pieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Some objects have never been seen in public before, including two recently restored sketches of empresses.

A glass vase, which looks surprisingly contemporary with its spiral pattern, shows innovative techniques used during the Qing dynasty.

A glass vase, which looks surprisingly contemporary with its spiral pattern, shows innovative techniques used during the Qing dynasty. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Wang expects the blockbuster attraction to be the museum’s rotating exhibition of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.

“(These works) are extremely fragile and extremely rare, so after 30 days in Hong Kong they are returned to the Forbidden City storage… (to) rest for a few years,” she explains.

166 artifacts from the loan are considered national treasures, including this one, "Ten thousand Li of rivers and mountains," a 12th-century ink-on-paper work by Zhao Fu.

166 artifacts from the loan are considered national treasures, including this one, “Ten Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains,” a 12th-century ink-on-paper work by Zhao Fu. Credit: The Palace Museum

The City’s Changing Environment for Art

With 84,000 square feet of gallery space and a modern design that nods to the famous architecture of the Forbidden City, the museum took just five years to realize. Neighboring institutions like the M+ Museum of Contemporary Visual Culture, which also overlooks Victoria Harbor from the West Kowloon Cultural District, took nearly twice as long.
One of the museum's nine galleries focuses on the history of Chinese ceramics, especially imperial porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

One of the museum’s nine galleries focuses on the history of Chinese ceramics, especially imperial porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum

The Hong Kong Palace Museum was not part of the original plans for the sprawling arts district, which sits on a tract of land and has been under development since the early 2000s. Lam’s unexpected revelation of plans in December 2016 has been seen by some critics as a means of gaining political favor with China’s central government (she held the second-highest job in Hong Kong at the time). Others claimed that Beijing had exerted pressure to approve the museum.

Lam dismissed allegations that the project went ahead for political reasons.

“I know that our society is full of this kind of mistrust these days. But for this project we really are not motivated by self-interest,” she said in 2017. “We really just hope to build a Hong Kong Palace Museum, for Hong Kong, where we can all be proud of.”

The museum’s announcement was nevertheless “a surprise to everyone, myself included,” Chan recalled. “Nobody knew about it,” he says. “But you can imagine why it was kept a bit secret. That discussion is at a very high level.”

A festive robe from the Qianlong period (1736 to 1795) is displayed during a media preview of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in Hong Kong on June 22, 2022.

A festive robe from the Qianlong period (1736 to 1795) is displayed during a media preview of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in Hong Kong on June 22, 2022. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

While the magnitude of Beijing’s role remains unknown, the $450 million museum fits Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the “Chinese dream” or “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which defines China’s economic future. and international influence are intertwined. with the glory of the nation’s past. Xi has spoken on several occasions about the role of artists in promoting patriotism and spreading Chinese and “core socialist” values. In his view, traditional Chinese culture should be seen as a source of inspiration for contemporary literary and artistic innovation.

During a three-day visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover in 2017, Xi attended a signing ceremony at the museum, saying he hoped Hong Kong could promote traditional Chinese culture and exchanges between China and the West. .
The Hong Kong Palace Museum, designed by Rocco Design Architects Associates, is located in the West Kowloon Cultural District overlooking Victoria Harbour.  Hong Kong is positioning itself as an East-meets-West cultural hub with the development of new art spaces in the district.

The Hong Kong Palace Museum, designed by Rocco Design Architects Associates, is located in the West Kowloon Cultural District overlooking Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong is positioning itself as an East-meets-West cultural hub with the development of new art spaces in the district. Credit: ROCCO Design Associates Architects Limited

But the museum opens today in a very different Hong Kong. Beijing’s pursuit of soft power comes at a time when freedom of expression is being curtailed after massive pro-democracy protests and the sweeping national security law that effectively brought them to a halt in 2020.

Art in the city is also under threat, with politically sensitive works apparently censored and artists imposing themselves in exile. Several high-profile artworks depicting the Tiananmen Square massacre, including the famous “Pillar of Shame,” have been demolished in Hong Kong, which was once the only place on Chinese soil where people could freely commemorate the victims of the bloody crackdown. Earlier this year, the painting “New Beijing,” a thinly veiled allusion to the deaths of pro-democracy protesters in the 1989 massacre, was removed from the exhibit at M+, though the museum said it was part of routine rotation plans involving “state of works of art and conservation needs.”

Shared history

While the latest loan is a first, the Hong Kong Palace Museum isn’t the only place displaying the treasures of the Forbidden City. In Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, many of the Imperial Palace’s most valuable treasures are currently housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

More than 600,000 artifacts from the Forbidden City were brought to the island by retreating Nationalist troops in the 1940s. With tensions between Beijing and Taipei at an all-time high, the museum is planning an exercise to evacuate artifacts should war break out.

“I hope that one day there can be real collaboration between the three museums, because we are all showing Chinese civilization,” said Chan, expressing hope that the city’s new museum and its treasure trove can bring politics to bear. transcend.

“Where did Chinese civilization come from? And how is Chinese civilization connected to other civilizations? Because we’re not alone, right? I think that’s important, especially at a time when the world is so polarized and divided.”

A portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in court dress.

A portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in court dress. Credit: The Palace Museum

For residents of Hong Kong, meanwhile, the museum is a hot summer destination, with 100,000 tickets already sold for July. In addition to being able to see the famous objects up close, the museum’s job is to make their stories relevant to the local public, Wang says.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian or a driver,” she says. “You (can) relate to these fantastic treasures and the stories we tell. You can be emotionally touched by the objects.”

Watch the video above for a closer look at the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

Kevin Broad, Momo Moussa, Tom Booth, Dan Hodge and Ziyu Zhang of CNN contributed to this report.

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